Most writers’ first novels do not get made into an Oscar-winning film, but that’s what happened to the Brooklyn College M.F.A. graduate who goes by the pen name Sapphire. Her first work, the poetry and prose collection “American Dreams” (1993), won her intellectual literary acclaim, but “Push” (1997) propelled the New York-based writer from the city’s poetry circles to Hollywood (“Precious” is the book’s film adaptation) and book reading clubs across the country.
“Push’s” obese protagonist, Precious, is an abused, illiterate African-American teen mother from Harlem who bears two children by her father. Sapphire’s brilliant writing gives voice to an illiterate young woman and transforms her language on her path to literacy and self-esteem.
Fourteen years later, Sapphire’s second novel, “The Kid,” follows Precious’ beloved 9-year old son Abdul, who must cope when his mother dies of AIDS.
“Push” may have had enough tragedy for more than one lifetime, but things actually get worse in “The Kid.” Once orphaned, Abdul suffers physical and sexual abuse for four years in a foster home and Catholic orphanage run by religious brothers in Harlem. By the age of 13, Abdul himself becomes a sexual predator but he grows into an intelligent, talented young man who finds his home and refuge in dance.
Q: Abdul’s story reminds me of a Dickens novel.
A: Dickens created the archetype of the orphan child in western culture, as did Charlotte Brontë. The trope of the orphan child showing the evils of society, there is a bit of that in this text. But the orphans of Victorian literature are always angels and Abdul has been to hell. I’m almost your tour guide through hell with him. It’s a victory, he emerges. He would be more of a Raskolnikov of “Crime and Punishment.” He is redeemed by his contrition and acts of creation.
A trailer for “Precious,” the 2009 Oscar-award winning film adaption of Sapphire’s first novel “Push.” Sapphire has just published her second novel, “The Kid,” and will speak at the free Word for Word series at Bryant Park on August 3.
Q: Abdul is an abused child who becomes an abuser, who rapes another child. Can you talk about creating a character that might not keep a reader’s sympathy or understanding?
A: In the novel “Push,” Precious was horrendously abused, but she does not visit that abuse on her child. Abdul’s first nine years are almost ideal. Because we clearly see what has happened to him, I don’t think the reader ever loses empathy or understanding. People don’t say, “I don’t understand why he did that.” The reader understands the psychological defense mechanisms he engages in. No one should sympathize with his behavior.
Q: Many readers and reviewers say the violence was very difficult for them to read. How did your work go in that direction?
A: The story took me there. There was a level of reality with which I had to approach the story. Children live this every day. I think part of us being intelligent readers, being concerned citizens, is can’t we at least share these children’s stories? Can’t we be a sea of empathy? Abdul is a child acting in response to painful things that have happened to him, he’s not a monster. I wanted to show what happens when a child is just abandoned. He had no extended family. Without his mother, his whole life falls apart. That’s very different than for the average child.
Q: No one intervenes in Abdul’s life.
A: Abdul is a reflection of his time. And his situation is far worse than Precious’. As I wrote “Push,” President Clinton cut some of the programs that would have affected Precious’ life in a positive way. Abdul is a reflection of a harder time. But we see the inability of oppression and horror to stamp out the human spirit. Over and over Abdul has memories of Precious’ intense desire for him to succeed. This is part of what allows him not to succumb to madness. He will latch on to the idea of dancing. He will evolve further than Precious. Precious was dependent on her social circle. This child is stronger. At nine he can read better than his mother could at 18. The first nine years of his life are functional. He had the idea that he should not be abused. He questions it when it happens. Abdul has a moment of artistic intervention when he discovers dance. That stops the cycle of abuse and is the fuel that propels him to be a great artist. He has been stripped of a lot, but not of an inner core of fire and burning desire. It allows him to become what his mother would have wanted, a great artist.
Q: In the second half of the book, you use stream of-consciousness, dreams and even drugged states to make Abdul an unreliable narrator. It’s unclear whether or how certain dramatic events unfolded. Is it a good tip to assure readers at the outset that it’s ok if they can’t recount exactly all that “really” happened to Abdul?
A: Yes. Abdul enters in and out of various states of awareness, denial, disassociation and acute and accurate analysis. His behavior and mental processes are geared toward survival and the restoring of his fragmented psyche, even of he has to lie to do it. Sometimes his dreams are “real” and his real life a fantasy.
Q: Did your poetry prepare you to describe parts of Abdul’s life and thoughts that we often think of as unspeakable?
A: No, I don’t think so. Little by little, some things we once considered unspeakable are now speakable. When I first showed people drafts of the book, they said, “This stuff about the Catholic church is going to be mindblowing.” Ten years down the line, it’s known to be commonplace. As I was writing, the culture was changing. There’s a network of abuse survivors, there’s a whole online world and therapeutic options growing up around men who are starting to speak out. I’m echoing the times. Ten years ago, it would be more than people could bear. When I wrote “Push,” people said this is hyperbole, you’re making this up. “The Kid” is a difficult book, it’s hard to read in parts, but no one is saying “This is not how certain segments of the culture act.” No one is saying Brother John and Samuel are not realistic. No one is saying the scene in foster home where kids are abusing each other is unrealistic.